Williams’ recently opened exhibition (although temporarily closed due to COVID-19), Papa Don’t Preach, sees the artist continue to challenge the dominant narratives around black masculinity and queer intimacy. Williams’ new series of self-portraits are not only captivating for their beauty and for the stories they tell, but for the naked vulnerability with which he once again depicts himself. But literal nudity isn’t the only way in which these images are an act of exposure for Williams, who also used the launch of this exhibition to make public his recent HIV diagnosis.
Papa Don’t Preach seems to depict the New York-based artist, who hails from Jackson, Mississippi, going back to his roots in more ways than one – not only returning to his family (the exhibition included portraits of the artist explicating relationships with his family), but also conveying a sense of Williams being drawn back into the earth in some elemental way; be it in the water, lying naked with his father in a field, or being lured into a palm-enveloped structure as an ex-lover’s limbs coil around his body.
We spoke to Williams about reframing the narrative around black queer identity, exposing oneself, and how becoming HIV-positive has changed their artwork.
Can you tell us how Papa Don’t Preach came to be?
D’Angelo Lovell Williams: The images I make come out of the timelessness of Black and queer narratives. I began including family in my work last year, starting with my mum and granny. I wanted to see how my connection to them related to the work I had been making with other queer Black people and myself.
Last summer, I took a trip to Sulfer, Louisiana, where my dad was living at the time, to visit and begin making images with him before he left the country to live in Mozambique. My father is a FEMA contractor and will be living there for work for the next year. He has been many things in his life and gone all over the world. For a long period of time, I didn’t know what he did. He was mostly in my life from a distance but had always tried to have a say in it, encourage me to be more like him, sometimes having people spy on me (laughs).
My dad knows I’m gay now, but there are underlying narratives that have gone undiscussed between us. He is happy to be in my work, but still has his views about me being gay and manhood. My dad and my mum’s mother, my granny, are reborn religiously and only choose to live right by God and the Bible. Being gay is a sin to them.
The images I made with both of them look into parts of our history that open up our lives and unexplored intimacies between multiple generations. Looking at my images collectively, Kim (from Higher Pictures) and I chose six images I had made over the past two years that made sense in relation to themes of love, intimacy, and kinship. My relationship with my dad affects my relationship with the Black men and queer, Black men in my life. Papa Don’t Preach looks at how all of these narratives can intertwine. It implicates history as many of us know it.
“I made the image knowing I wanted to talk about not giving a fuck about restrictions and labels put on me” – D’Angelo Lovell Williams
Your photographs suggest so many narratives. What stories do you want these images to tell?
D’Angelo Lovell Williams: The narratives are all varied and usually layered in each image. They are all specific to Black and queer, Black people intentionally. I pull from my own history and history at large to talk about how our experiences have been overlooked and affect how we live in the world around us. For example, a lot of my images deal with sex, race, gender, and class. If you look throughout history, most of what is there are depictions of straight and white peoples’ narratives of love, desire, power, wealth, and overall mediocrity.
In one image in Papa Don’t Preach, I’m in a lake wearing a white dress. I clearly have on nothing under and appear to be swimming away. I think about the Igbo people drowning themselves to avoid what white people had in store for them on the stolen lands of America. The image is simply titled ‘Nah’. The title suggests opposition to or disagreement with something. I am usually in opposition to anything or anyone that keeps Black and queer people from living full lives and succeeding. I made the image knowing I wanted to talk about not giving a fuck about restrictions and labels put on me.
I look at how history has played a part in defining what Blackness is and isn’t. Colonialism and slavery still go unaccounted for because the people who benefit from that continue to do so and are still in power. You’re Black and you’re queer? It seems like that is nothing new. Where is our history? I think about the history of white people telling us what is desirable and how that has built walls of complexity for Black people seeing and loving each other. Conversations like these lead to some of the narratives. I can discuss issues of gender identity by making an image of a Black man in a body of water, wearing a nice white dress, and swimming away. Simple gestures and actions. This also looks like a story of isolation or being on a journey by and with the self. What can that look like for Black and queer people? Do two Black people together always look like love? Are we at our most vulnerable alone? The pictures are the questions, not the answers to them. My ideas come from all aspects of Black life, history, and imagination.
I have never arm-wrestled with my dad before I made ‘Daddy Issues’ with my father. Touch was not a huge part of our history. Much of my experience with my father has felt like a challenge which gave me the idea to look like we were challenging each other in a mundane way. In this image, we are both shirtless, showing how normal our bodies look. We are showing our tattoos and jewellery. It’s one of my more masculine images, but is quite feminine at the same time. The narrative here is that many queer people have issues with their fathers. These issues do not get solved by arm wrestling but it would be much easier to just do that.
In ‘Elysian’, I am retreating underneath dead palm tree leaves and I’m pulling an ex-lover into me. He is wearing a silver gown-like shirt. The narrative here revolves around diving into the unknown with someone you love in a fictitious paradise.
In ‘Transference (Reprise)’, my dad looks over my still, naked body, and up towards something. I didn’t realise I told him to wear the same silver gown that is being worn in ‘Elysian’. It makes sense because now there is that connection visually between my father and the men in my life. ‘Transference (Reprise)’ depicts a narrative of transference, the term used in psychoanalysis. The idea in my image is that my naked body is not dead. The act of transference is occurring from my father to me to make my spirit more like his. He has his feelings about me based on his own life. What is being transferred here is open for interpretation. Most of my images are open for interpretation once they leave me and I’m not there to talk about them. I have to really sit with myself, others, and shared history to render narratives out of my own language. They are staged images, making the narratives always seem exact to many people, but they are layered and not meant to be ‘gotten’. Getting an answer is not my goal. The point is to talk about the images without the context of time… time exists simultaneously as past, present and future.
How did your HIV diagnosis inform your art and change your relationship with your body?
D’Angelo Lovell Williams: It’s been almost three months now. The work I’ve made since my diagnosis in January hasn’t really been informed by it. I haven’t made much work since I found out.
My body has changed a lot in the images I’ve made over the past five years. I was a bigger-bodied person for much of my life up until early college. I lost some weight and never felt the need to tone excess fat from weight loss. I’ve grown into my body much more since then. I’ve learned to love my body through images and personal growth. Looking at many of the pictures I made during grad school and after, I can see my weight go up and down. I definitely have felt and seen the difference between before and after my HIV diagnosis. Biktarvy is the medication I now take every day if I want to stay healthier, recover my immune system, and remain undetectable. I do. I’m much better physically than I was before and it’s only been about three months on my meds. Results of medications vary from person to person depending on how early they are diagnosed and their strain of the virus. Some strains of HIV are resistant to certain medications. The medication is definitely strong and has become advanced enough over the past 40 years so that I only have to take one pill a day for the rest of my life. The pictures will come and the work will be informed by everything at this point. I can not force images to be borne from my diagnosis or any part of my life, but I do sit with the history, the ancestry, of Black, queer people who never got a chance to live because the world let them die.
“The act of touch is very important in my work. There are a lot of hands throughout” – D’Angelo Lovell Williams
You’ve described ‘discovery’ as a driving force behind your work. Could you tell us about what discoveries you were making when creating these images?
D’Angelo Lovell Williams: The thought of Black and queer people investigating our own bodies and each other’s bodies brings me to the realm of science and science fiction. I think about the dissection of the body in a way that we can look at one another. Many people can make discoveries about themselves and others. One aspect of discovery I long for visualises Black flesh meeting Black flesh and becoming something else. It’s this joining and testing of what bodies can do through intimate gestures, connections, and actions. I want to see what it looks like when pressure from any part of one body is applied to any part of another. The act of touch is very important in my work. There are a lot of hands throughout. That touch, that connection, feels as much as it looks like something.
There is self-discovery. I found what I like to look like and wear. I found that sometimes I don’t look how I feel. Certain changes in my body signify I’m getting older. I definitely think about how images of people considered desirable and those I desire have influenced the actual people in my life and the men in my life. These ideas lead to conversations around self-image, consent, and vulnerability between lovers, family, and friends. The interactions look different each time and that is what the pictures are made out of. There is proof that we have looked at each other based on our own perspectives. I’m not photographing skinny models to make pictures for many reasons. I’m photographing normal people doing mundane things. Discovering the variations of intimacy is important for Black and queer people because that looks so different for many of us, and it doesn’t even exist to others.
Your self-portraits manage to achieve a quality of vulnerability but also courage and defiance. Can you expand on your intentions behind this series?
D’Angelo Lovell Williams: The six images in Papa Don’t Preach were made from August 2018 to July 2019. ‘Nah’ was made while I was at the Skowhegan residency in Maine in the summer of 2018. A lot of racial and sexual tension was occurring during the two months of the residency. It was challenging to be in the water trying to make an image of how racial issues and ideas around sexuality still affect us today.
I made ‘DIY (Babyface)’ and ‘Elysian’ in Los Angeles in the months after living there. I was dating the first and only boyfriend I’ve ever had, who is now my ex and still my friend. I was struggling with living outside of my images and dealing with personal issues. I wanted to show representations of love but didn’t have a grand example of it. I showed what it felt like trying to love and be loved. It was necessary to deconstruct my ideas about much of what I discuss in a photograph. I have definitely grown from many moments of uncertainty.
“Discovering the variations of intimacy is important for Black and queer people because that looks so different for many of us, and it doesn’t even exist to others” – D’Angelo Lovell Williams
‘Was Blind, But Now I See (Granny)’ was made in Mississippi. The title references an incident where my grandmother went into cardiac arrest and died for 10 minutes about 16 years ago. She was resuscitated after 10 minutes but came back blind, she couldn’t talk, and couldn’t walk. Over 12 years she regained her sight, learned how to walk, and talk normally. The gesture of her hand over my face in the image suggests being able to share something that has been seen or lived by someone else.
The images of my father came at a perfect time as I was beginning to make work of him as he prepared to move to Africa. Visiting him and seeing how he lived opened up my eyes to years of undiscussed conversations around desire. My dad, who is dark-skinned, has always liked lighter-skinned women. My mother, my sister’s mother, and my dad’s ex-wife were all light-skinned. At some point, I wondered if my dad felt his own skin was beautiful enough to love. I’m attracted to Black, queer people in general and find non-queer people attractive. Some people have preferences rooted in anti-Blackness, which need to be discussed. Papa Don’t Preach came together visually and thematically in a few months time due to the necessity of these conversations. It made sense to connect love, intimacy, and kinship through my relationship with the self, a lover, and my family. It made sense to have visual representations of intergenerational narratives involving spirituality and ancestry. The images themselves have nothing to do with time and everything to do with presence.
Why did you feel it was important to reveal your HIV diagnosis? And why did this exhibition feel like the right moment to take this step?
D’Angelo Lovell Williams: It’s important to be able to live and present as our full selves whenever we want. For me, it was about being a part of a history that has still not gotten the attention it needs. We are still seeing the disgusting, stigmatised conversations surrounding HIV and Aids in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We get through so much trauma and pain through laughter and jokes. People are dying and people are at risk. Our lack of healthcare and critical conversation about destigmatising HIV and Aids is to blame. It’s okay for people being diagnosed with COVID-19 to announce their positive status, but HIV positive people still live in fear of losing whatever they have due to having the virus and they fear not getting the care they need to live full lives. Growing up around family I would hear what people said about people they knew, locals or celebrities, like Magic Johnson, who had the virus. People don’t want to touch us, hug us – we are ‘sexual deviants’, the worst things. I knew I was gay around four or five-years-old. I walked toward my mum with a shirt wrapped around my head like hair and told her my boyfriend was coming to pick me up. She popped the shit out of me until I said my girlfriend was picking me up. Of course, I was closeted growing up in the south. So many men, people in general, have HIV in Mississippi.
I didn’t have my first sexual experiences with another person, a man, until I got to Syracuse for grad school in 2015. I was aware that I could get HIV and I thought I never would. I avoided people who told me they were positive. Eventually, I opened up my mind, my eyes, and my heart. This is not something special or to be rewarded for. It’s just being human. There is no reason to be afraid of people living with the virus. Having positive friends open up to me and share their experiences with me as I was having and making my own as an HIV negative person was so informative and a blessing. It prepared me for dating someone positive. Dating someone positive prepared me for potentially being positive one day. In all of this, that facts still remain that people think it’s the 80s and 90s when it comes to living with HIV or Aids because that is their only relationship to issue. They are unaware of advancements in medicine as well as terminologies used to describe stages of the virus when on medication.
Papa Don’t Preach does not include any images made where I am aware that I am HIV positive. The images lead to now. It is important to continue living as a Black, queer HIV positive artist regardless of being more than that. It is a part of me and it clearly affects my livelihood to talk about it. There is no need to hide or feel ashamed at the end of the day. I knew I had a show coming up, but my HIV diagnosis was unexpected. I wanted to speak about it publicly but didn’t know how to. Kim asked me if I wanted to write the press release for the show and talk about the images and my diagnosis. It felt like the right time for me to be brave and fearless in order to help end the stigma.
“When I present images about vulnerability and intimacy or race and sexuality I know they are not just about me” – D’Angelo Lovell Williams
This exhibition is very personal – how do you navigate placing something so intimate in such a public space?
D’Angelo Lovell Williams: I let go. I make the work and I let it go where it needs to. I relinquished shame and humiliation. I didn’t always look like I do now. I am definitely humble about my looks and that has taken the duration of my life to do. Some people feel a way about me being light skin in or out of my work. I’m not entitled to anything or anyone. Images of myself and my life affirm the power of the narratives I portray just as much as they affirm the fact of my singularity.
When I present images about vulnerability and intimacy or race and sexuality I know they are not just about me. Everyone’s got their own shit to deal with but it doesn’t always have to be dealt with alone. I can build a community with images in public spaces. Exhibitions, museums and galleries, and the internet provides space and platforms to so many. They all still have their restrictions and limitations. Most of the work I want to post gets censored. I want people to see the work in person outside of small screens but not everyone can come from out of town to see an exhibition or see it while it’s up. It’s a risk and privilege making art especially centred on Black and queer narratives but it’s necessary to take that risk whenever I can. It’s lifelong and exhausting at times. Not everyone has the opportunities I’ve had and they took those same risks just existing. I’ve been very blessed to be where I am in the art world at 27. I stop being afraid once I remember what my ancestors died for and how they died. It’s important to keep their legacies alive.
D’Angelo Lovell Williams’ Papa Don’t Preach is showing at Janice Guy at MBnb, New York, until 9 May 2020